Archive for October, 2010

Game review: Alan Wake

Replaying Alan Wake from the beginning so I can write about it. I only just started it over the weekend, but I had a headful of things to say about it. Yeah, I’m gonna kind of dump on it and nit-pick it.

On my first playthrough, I had the language set to Francais, so I was primarily reacting to the visuals (because I could not understand everything that was narrated or spoken). I gave the writing a lot of benefit of the doubt, but now I’m playing in English, and I was sort of taken aback by how reliant on redundancy it was. “Suddenly, the body was gone!” or whatever he says, after the body suddenly disappears, which we just saw happen. This is basic stuff. If this were the work handed in by one of my students* I would draw a big red line through it and make him write 25 different lines that are better than that. And he’d thank me for it.

The main problem of the opening cutscene (I have the game paused now just at the point when controller-enabled play begins) is that it is a cutscene. Let me explain. I have to make this same complaint every year that I judge the IF Competition games: A lot of the material in your intro tells us about a bunch of stuff happening, instead of letting us get to play it. Start the game earlier and let us play the intro. For Alan Wake, player-controlled play should begin right after the opening title, as soon as he describes having a dream where he’s driving at night. The players should be driving the car, even as the narration continues to play. Then when Alan Wake suddenly hits a guy who pops up in the middle of the road — BANG! It’s a scare for us, because we’re driving, and we just hit that guy! Then we could get out of the car, inspect the guy, hear more narration, react to the headlights in the car going out, react to not seeing the body there any more…

I mean, the only reason to make us watch that instead of getting to play that — like it never even occurred to the people making the game to make it interactive, it was always supposed to be this movie — is that they want to play at being filmmakers. So they do these swooping helicopter shots that I guess are supposed to be like the beginning of The Shining or something, and this particularly bugs me when it goes past the point where I said the game should start — that as far as the storytelling goes, Alan Wake is now telling us his dream as he recalls it. Why is he recalling swooping aerial view shots of his car instead of a first-or-second person viewpoint?

If you want to make movies, go and make movies. If you want to make videogames, make videogames.

At the checkpoint where I stopped last time. Alan and his girlfriend, whose name escapes me, because it hasn’t been properly taught to me I suppose, have just arrived at a remote cabin. She is apparently afraid of the dark — “She has a phobia, a fear of darkness…” as Alan tells us — which seems like a strange place to take someone like that. It also is reminding me of that Lars von Trier movie with Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, come to think of it.

There is some nice character animation done on the girlfriend’s face, but the effect still comes across of either puppets or blind actors. That second one is an uncanny valley effect, but the eyes of all these digital actors are greatly harming their impression of lifelikeness.

In an earlier draft of this, I was going to talk about how I could tell them exactly what is wrong with the eye positions, and how to set them correctly so that even if they don’t move they look more convincingly alive and alert more of the time on average. Then I realized, this could be a great specialized thing to say that one does, and to charge lots of money for doing it for about a year, until everyone catches on how to do it and stops hiring a special expensive guy who does it. Then I realized, hey, I can’t even prove I actually do know how to do this, I’m just extrapolating from what I know I can do to assume that this is the sort of thing I’d be able to do. How embarrassing it’d be to find out that I actually couldn’t do it, I just thought I could.

Anyway, back to Alan Wake. It’s not bad. I’m having a harder time this go-round thinking of things to really be critical about how they’re being done. I need to look back at my notes, which I left in my jacket, which is hanging in the closet. But if I go to get my jacket and put it on, I will start the habit-mechanism that will propel me out of the house to go get a cup of coffee, because that’s always what I do immediately after I put on the jacket. So before I read my notes, I have to ask myself: Well, do you? DO you want another cup of coffee right now?

—-One cup of coffee later… —-

When I left off the first time, I let Alan Wake just stand there outside his little cabin, so that I could watch his idle animation cycle. And it does, it cycles, but people put thought and effort into these things. It’s one of those things I like to do in a game, just to see what they did — not input any commands for a minute, and watch the character shift their weight and glance around. It doesn’t seem to have any randomized or weighted choice variety to it, it’s just a cycle of different things, about 15 seconds long or something. Here, all the casual-yet-concerned body language acting the mocap people did is once again undercut to a degree by the frozen eyes. Except, wait, they’re not frozen — in the idle cycle, Wake shifts his eyes to the side and then back again. So, it is possible to animate them at least that much. It helps, but it’s still not quite right.

I’m thinking of an algorithm, a method, for having eyeballs focus on the right things in an animation. Can you guess how I’m thinking of doing it? I don’t know how hard it would be to do, really. Surely someone would have done it by now if it were that easy.

Make that check out to JRW Digital Media, and I’ll get right on solving that for you.

I liked the scene where you run to safety over a rickety wooden bridge that blows away when you get across it; it worked dramatically while letting me steer myself. I also liked the Ferry scene, a contemplative, unhurried ride with a couple of conversational elements that play out automatically as you wander around. You get to watch the bridge go by overhead, and can find a couple of places to walk to, like up a set of steps, while Alan takes a phone call. It’s a very natural thing to do, wander around a bit while you’re gabbing on the phone, and I really enjoyed that they let me do that. This is what I mean — they could have decided to make this another cutscene, but why do that when you can at least offer a tiny bit of interactive exploration?

Alan starts to slow down and wheeze after a fairly short sprint. Well, he’s a writer, he’s not in good shape. However, that only happens when he’s in an action scene. If you’re just wandering around — and again, I like the fact that the game sometimes just opens its borders a little bit and lets you wander off. Before you go to the cabin, a cutscene leaves you on one side of a bridge, but you can go the other way, up the hill, back to where your car is parked, and walk back down again. This all happens with the sunset glowing its lovely “golden hour” glow, so it’s pleasant to take a walk around.

I do walk, in these games. I know a lot of people go through games full-tilt, but I like to sometimes role-play my movements, and when I’d walk if that character were me, I try to make the character walk. Some games are much walk-friendlier than others, both in how sensitive the control is to gentle direction input, and in whether they’ve even put a good slow-walk animation cycle in there. Sometimes it’s either you’re standing still or you’re going a funny staggered jump-walk where it’s vacillating between two digital states that don’t have an inbetween.

Someday we’ll need to invent digital-analog, so everything degrades smoothly. Patent application pending.

In other games, I’ve noticed that the bigger animation problem with walking very slowly is with follower NPCs. They are tailored to keep up with a PC who is going at a full run, and do a terrible marionette dance when forced to walk. So basically nobody has testers who like to walk slowly instead of running, is what I’m gathering. Oh well.

The Alan Wake game tries very hard to limit the amount of interactivity it allows in whichever mode (explore vs action) it happens to be in, so a lot of the buttons are “numb” — they don’t do anything at all when you press them. You kind of want them to, and they don’t, and that always makes me feel restricted or kind of off balance. I think I’d even prefer it if it made a little feedback sound that meant “this does not do anything” when I heard it, than nothing at all. Numbness. Don’t like.

There are small errors, little details. A vehicle drives by, making an engine and tire sound from a completely different type of vehicle. Yes, it makes a difference. Oh, speaking of audio — this is another general problem I have with many videogames, the ones that do spatialization of audio sources within the game. I’m not sure what physics they’re using to make the audio modifications — maybe they’re exactly supposed to be how they work in the real world, with an inverse-proportionate dB drop-off of sound compared to the distance from the source, but it’s wrong to use that. It has to be tweaked, padded, stretched, into audio that’s “unrealistic” in how it’s calculated, but is more realistic to hear. People’s voices don’t disappear into the distance when I turn my back or even if I walk 15 feet away from them. They can sound a lot more present than that. Our brains and ears do a lot of cool stuff to make sounds work better in our heads than microphones do when they pick up point sources of audio, which is basically what you’re simulating when you run the absolute math on the localized audio. Everybody, stop doing that.

Well! That’s as far as I’ve gotten with Alan Wake, about 15 minutes of it, twice. Plus the hour it took to write up my thoughts. Non-billable hours, of course.

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* I don’t actually have any students. Perhaps this is why.

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